Kiya Tomlin sewing masks used against COVID-19

Kiya Tomlin said in times of stress, she has always sewn.

As a college student, during exams. As a new wife, having to move. Now, as the nation grips with a devastating pandemic -- COVID-19.

"I haven't sewn on this machine this much in a long time," Tomlin said with a little laugh, speaking of the Baby Lock model sitting at her kitchen table.

There is great seriousness to Tomlin's efforts, though, as the fashion designer and CEO of an eponymous clothing line is sewing perhaps the most valuable thing she ever has: masks. Masks to protect faces, and masks to hopefully help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Tomlin is like most of us these days, confined to her home, her workspace shuttered as the country tries to flatten the curve of the new coronavirus that has ripped across the world. Her older son, Dino, is home prematurely from his freshman year at Maryland, taking classes via the internet. Her second son, Mason, is finishing his senior year of high school from their house, too -- also online. Her 13-year old daughter, Harlyn, is a competitive gymnast and seasoned cyberschooler, but she's turned the Tomlin house into her gym. And then there's Kiya Tomlin's husband, Mike, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, suddenly home all day, too, preparing for the 2020 NFL Draft and making all sorts of noise. (Yes, Mrs. Tomlin says, her husband's voice booms just as loudly at home as it does in his weekly press conferences.)

Almost as soon as non-essential businesses were closed in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, in mid-March, a friend sent her an article calling on home sewers in Indiana to make masks.

Tomlin's children, all good students, were largely self-sufficient. She kept cleaning her house and cooking ("The eating! They want to eat all day," she said, putting voice to what nearly every mother is saying right about now), and so that call-out obviously intrigued her.

"I wondered, 'Do we need these here? Does anyone want these,' " she said, as this was just before it became so public that America had such a dire shortage of masks.

She eventually connected with some folks at the Allegheny Health Network and began working with her own staff on designing a washable, reusable cloth mask.

Tomlin knew these cloth masks could not block all the minuscule particles transmitted through coughs or sneezes, but her hope was that they could leave the increasingly hard-to-find N95 masks -- that do do that -- to the frontline healthcare workers who absolutely need them.

Tomlin said her initial goal was to have the masks she and her team are making go to hospital support staff: the receptionists, janitors and cafeteria staff and all those who are still vital and desperate for some sort of personal protective equipment. Since then, though, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has officially recommended that everyone wear a cloth face covering of some sort where standard social distancing measures -- at a grocery store or gas station, for example -- may be difficult. Asymptomatic people still can spread the virus, and the CDC has said slowing the spread of the coronavirus is a "national effort."

"Something is better than nothing," Tomlin said, even as she is continually working to improve the design of her masks.

The morning we spoke, she had figured out a way to sew the masks with a little open pocket, one in which someone could place a piece of a HEPA filter vacuum bag, or a blue shop towel or whatever other material is being found to better filter the particles that could carry the virus.

Tomlin has so far delivered 300 masks to hospitals in Pittsburgh. Her team, which numbers "four and a half" (the "half" being her daughter, Harlyn), can each make a mask in about 8 minutes. (Save for Harlyn, who Tomlin said maybe takes 9 minutes.) They sewed another 500 last week and, as word spreads of what they're doing, are starting to net requests from hospitals around the country. Tomlin is cutting the fabric in her workshop (yes, she wields the power saw herself), but everyone is sewing by themselves, at home, and then dropping the masks to her for delivery (yes, she goes to the post office herself), at a specially designated time.

"We are practicing social distancing," she promised.

The NFL community has responded in multiple ways to the crisis at hand. Among others, Patriots owner Robert Kraft spent $2 million and used his team plane to transport 1.2 million N95 masks from China, while Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has donated $1 million to the COVID-19 Immunology Defense Fund at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tomlin's effort is very personal, however, of her own hands and own execution.

When asked why this project so spoke to her, Tomlin said it wasn't necessarily this crisis, but "just who I am."

When Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in the Houston era back in 2017, she called Colleen O'Brien, whose husband Bill is the Texans' head coach. She asked how she could help. O'Brien talked about families who'd lost everything but the clothes they were wearing and Tomlin didn't hesitate. She sent three enormous pallets amounting to about 60 boxes of brand-new clothing from her collection. She outfitted a badly hit neighborhood with new wardrobes, but she modestly shrugged it off with a line about that being better than putting the clothes on clearance in her store.

It is not the ethos of either of the Tomlins to want credit for what they do, in coaching an injury-ravaged squad to within a game of the playoffs (as her husband did this past year) or in building from scratch a successful clothing line while raising three whip-smart children (as Kiya Tomlin has done).

"Fashion does feel so frivolous," she said. "It does not feel important, and so I feel grateful to be able to use it in an important way."

Now, while there was a lot of creative energy expended in figuring out the exact best design for the mask, she laughed that the masks themselves are not haute couture, but rather, the fabric that was on sale, in bulk, and eligible for her 30 percent off coupon at her local JOANN Fabrics. She did not buy any black-and-yellow print (one of her employees, apparently, did), and she jokingly said, "We're not taking custom orders."

To some degree, though, she is.

A surgeon asked her if she could make a few bigger sizes, ones that could fit over the elusive N95 masks, with the idea being that doctors could ration those vital pieces of protective gear by instead changing an outer mask for each patient. Tomlin and her team are doing that, and they also changed up their pattern, creating a little pocket in each mask for a filter that could be placed inside.

And so that's where Tomlin asks for help. She just last week bought 1,500 yards of elastic and 400 yards of fabric, and so while she'll happily take fabric donations, she doesn't necessarily need that. She doesn't want monetary donations. If home sewers want to drop off masks they've made outside her store, she's happy to package them with the ones her team is making and send them along to places of need. But what she really, truly, ultimately does long for is someone to develop and produce the appropriate filter to slide into the washable masks she's making.

"That's what I really want," she said. "Someone should be able to do that, right?"

We can all hope.

Kiya Tomlin is proprietor of the Kiya Tomlin Work/Shop, located at 388 Butler Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15223. The label's website is kiyatomlin.us

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter at @AKinkhabwala

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